Playing sport and doing regular exercise is good for your health, but can sometimes result in injuries.
Sports injuries can be caused by:
an accident – such as a fall or heavy blow
not warming up properly before exercising
using inappropriate equipment or poor technique
pushing yourself too hard
Almost any part of the body can be injured, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). The ankles and knees are some of the most commonly affected areas.
What to do if you have an injury
If you've injured yourself, you will probably notice pain, tenderness, swelling, bruising, and restricted movement or stiffness in the affected area immediately. Sometimes, you may only notice these symptoms several hours after exercising or playing sports.
Stop exercising if you feel pain, regardless of whether your injury happened suddenly or you’ve had the pain for a while. Continuing to exercise while you're injured may cause further damage and slow your recovery time.
If the injury is minor, you don't usually need to see a doctor and can look after yourself at home (see below), but you may want to visit your GP or local walk-in centre if you need advice or your symptoms don't get better over time.
If the injury is severe, such as a broken bone, dislocation or severe head injury, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible.
Treating a sports injury
You can usually treat minor injuries yourself by:
resting the affected body part for the first 48-72 hours to prevent further damage
regularly applying an ice pack to the affected area during the first 48-72 hours to reduce swelling
using over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to relieve pain
If your symptoms are severe or don't start to get better within a few days or weeks, your GP may be able to refer you for specialist treatment and support, such as physiotherapy.
Particularly serious injuries will occasionally require a procedure or operation to align any misplaced bones, fix any broken bones, or repair any torn ligaments.
Depending on the type of injury you have, it can take a few weeks or months to make a full recovery. While you recover, it's important not to do too much too fast – aim to increase your level of activity gradually over time.
Preventing sports injuries
You can reduce your risk of getting injured by:
warming up properly before you exercise .
not pushing your body beyond your current fitness level
using appropriate equipment for specific sports – such as suitable running shoes, shin guards for football, and a gum shield for rugby
receiving coaching to learn correct techniques
If you start a new sport or activity, get advice and training from a qualified healthcare professional or sports coach.
Learn more by reading the following pages – exercise: getting started and fitness and training tips.
Examples of sports injuries
Sport injuries can affect almost any part of the body, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).
Sprains and strains are the most common type of sports injury. A sprain happens when one or more of the ligaments are stretched, twisted or torn. A muscle strain ("pulling a muscle") happens when muscle tissues or fibres are stretched or torn.
Signs of a sprain or strain can include pain, swelling, bruising and tenderness around a joint or in a muscle. You may also find it difficult to move the affected body part.
Other sports injuries include:
bone injuries, including fractures
knee pain, including knee ligament damage
Many sports carry a risk of causing back pain, which is usually caused by a sprain or strain in the back. Properly warming up before exercise can reduce this risk.
Back pain is often felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back, but it can be felt anywhere from the neck and shoulders down to the buttocks and legs.
Repetitive activity or a heavy impact while playing sport can injure bones, causing:
stress fractures – bone pain caused by a tiny crack that develops in a bone as a result of repeated stresses (for example, during high-impact activities like distance running)
shin splints – painful shins caused by inflammation in the tissues surrounding the shin bone; this is common in any sport that involves running
a broken ankle
a broken arm or wrist
a broken leg
a broken toe
a broken finger
A broken bone may cause swelling, significant bruising and tenderness around the injured area, and bleeding if the bone has broken the skin (open fracture). It's unlikely you will be able to use the affected limb.
The pain associated with a broken bone can also be severe and make you feel faint, dizzy and sick.
If any part of your body looks deformed, including your fingers, you may have broken a bone and you need to go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.
Hamstring injuries are tears to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thighs. They are common among athletes.
Sudden lunging, running or jumping can cause the hamstring tendons or muscles to tear, which can be felt or heard as a pop and will be immediately painful. The muscle will spasm (seize up) and feel tight and tender. In some cases, there may also be swelling and bruising.
Minor head injuries, such as bumps or bruises, are common and not usually serious. If you have any concerns, see your GP or local walk-in centre.
You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 and ask for an ambulance if any symptoms of a severe head injury develop, such as:
unconsciousness, even if it was only very brief
difficulty staying awake or still being sleepy several hours after the injury
a seizure or fit (when your body suddenly moves uncontrollably)
difficulty speaking, such as slurred speech
significantly blurred vision or double vision
difficulty understanding what people say
Heel pain can happen when the thick band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot becomes damaged. It's common in runners and joggers.
It can cause a sharp and often severe pain when you place weight on your heel. In most cases, only one heel is affected, although some people have pain in both heels.
Heel pain and stiffness can also sometimes be caused by damage to the Achilles tendon, which runs up the back of the heel. This damage can occur gradually over a long period of time, or the tendon can snap (rupture) suddenly.
If you experience sudden and severe pain in your heel, which may be accompanied by a "popping" or "snapping" sound, you may have ruptured your Achilles tendon and should seek medical advice immediately.
Joint inflammation can be caused by conditions that affect the joints and tendons, such as:
bursitis – inflammation of a bursa, which is a small fluid-filled sac underneath the skin, usually found over the joints and between tendons and bones; this is common in the knee, hip and elbow
tendonitis – inflammation of a tendon around the shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger, thigh, knee or back of the heel
Tennis elbow is a type of tendonitis that affects the outside of the elbow, caused by repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm. Golfer’s elbow is similar, but the swelling occurs on the inside of the elbow.
Sudden knee pain is common in contact sports, especially those that involve twisting, and is usually caused by a sprain, strain or tendonitis.
Other knee injuries include:
Runner’s knee – caused by overuse of the knee. Symptoms include soreness and discomfort beneath or to one side of your kneecap. It can also cause a grating sensation in your knee.
Cartilage damage – where a piece of cartilage breaks off and affects the movement of your joint. This can cause a feeling of the joint locking or catching. Sometimes, the joint may also give way.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – see below.
Knee ligament damage
The ACL is one of four ligaments in your knee. It can tear if you suddenly stop or change direction, or if you land badly from a jump. If you tear your ACL, you may hear a pop or crack at the time of your injury.
Other symptoms of a torn ACL include:
severe pain in your knee
instability in your knee, which means you cannot put much weight on it – especially when going up or down stairs
swelling in your knee
not having the full range of movement in your knee and, in particular, not being able to straighten your leg completely
Shoulder pain is common in sports that include repetitive movement, such as overarm bowling or throwing. Tendons around the shoulder (the rotor cuff) can become inflamed (tendonitis) or torn, causing pain.
A dislocated shoulder may be caused by a heavy fall or a sudden impact. The upper arm painfully "pops" out of the shoulder joint and you will not be able to move the arm.
If you have a dislocated shoulder, you should go to the A&E department of your nearest hospital. It may help to support the arm with a sling while you make your way there.
Rubbing or chafing of skin can be caused by poorly fitting shoes or clothes. Making sure you wear proper sports gear will help to prevent this.
If you have a severe skin injury, such as a deep, open wound in the skin, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. Treatment may be needed to stop the bleeding, and stitches may be required.
Treating sports injuries
Treatment for a sports injury will depend on factors such as how severe the injury is and the part of your body affected.
Some general treatments that may be helpful for your injury are described below.
Minor injuries, such as mild sprains and strains, can often be initially treated at home using PRICE therapy for two or three days.
PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Protection – protect the affected area from further injury; for example, by using a support.
Rest – avoid exercise and reduce your daily physical activity. Using crutches or a walking stick may help if you cannot put weight on your ankle or knee, and a sling may help if you‘ve injured your shoulder.
Ice – apply an ice pack to the affected area for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours. A bag of frozen peas, or similar, will work well. Wrap the ice pack in a towel to avoid it directly touching your skin and causing an ice burn.
Compression – use elastic compression bandages during the day to limit swelling.
Elevation – keep the injured body part raised above the level of the heart whenever possible. This may also help to reduce swelling.
Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can be used to help ease the pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) tablets or creams, such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help ease any pain and help to reduce any swelling.
Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age.
Immobilisation can sometimes help to prevent further damage by reducing movement. It can also reduce pain, muscle swelling and muscle spasm.
For example, slings, splints and casts may be used to immobilise injured arms, shoulders, wrists and legs while you heal.
If you only have a sprain, prolonged immobilisation is not usually necessary, and you should try gently moving the affected joint as soon as you are able to do so without experiencing significant pain.
Some people recovering from a long-term injury may benefit from physiotherapy.
This is a specialist treatment that can involve techniques such as massage, manipulation and exercises to improve the range of motion, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and return the normal function of injured area.
A physiotherapist can also develop an exercise programme to help strengthen the affected body part and reduce the risk of the injury recurring.
If you have severe or persistent inflammation, a corticosteroid injection may be recommended.
These can help to relieve pain caused by your injury, although for some people the pain relief is minimal or only lasts for a short period of time. If necessary, the injections can be repeated every few months, but care must be taken to avoid side effects, such as thinning of the skin.
Surgery and procedures
Most sports injuries don't require surgery, but very severe injuries such as badly broken bones may require corrective surgery to fix the bones with wires, plates, screws or rods.
In some cases, however, it may be possible realign displaced bones without needing an operation.
Certain other injuries may also occasionally require surgery. For example, an operation may be needed to repair a torn knee ligament.
Depending on the type of injury you have, it can take a few weeks to a few months or more to make a full recovery.
You shouldn't return to your previous level of activity until you have fully recovered, but you should aim to gently start moving the injured body part as soon as possible.
Gentle exercises should help to improve the area’s range of movement. As movement becomes easier and the pain decreases, stretching and strengthening exercises can be introduced.
Make sure you don't try to do too much too quickly, as this can prolong your recovery time. Start by doing frequent repetitions of a few simple exercises, before gradually increasing the amount you do.
In some cases, you may benefit from the help of a professional, such as a physiotherapist or sports injury specialist, who can design a suitable recovery programme and advise you about which exercises you should do and the number of repetitions.
Treating specific injuries
Click on the links below for more information on treatment for specific injuries:
broken arm or wrist
minor head injuries
severe head injuries
sprains and strains